Monday, September 30, 2013

Where’s Your Ethical Line?

We saw the movie Prisoners this past weekend and I squirmed in my seat more than once. The movie is a tense psychological thriller about the lengths a father will go to when his daughter and her friend go missing while walking one day. The tension is palpable throughout the movie and the premise is one of my worst nightmares as a parent.

When I was in high school, our band director and his family were on vacation in Colorado. Their teen son went on a walk to go to a nearby store and was never seen or heard from again. I remember all of the drama when he first went missing. It was a tragic story that caused many parents in our West Texas community to watch their children a little more closely.

As a parent, it would be an unimaginable nightmare to not know where your child is. Once or twice, my son failed to get home on time or answer his phone for an extended time period and for just a bit I felt panicked. It was an overreaction but real for me for a bit. I cannot imagine having a child go missing and not have any idea where they were. And it happens … too often for too many parents.

And that is the premise of the movie – parents dealing with a missing child.

But the other piece of the movie is the question of how far a parent will go to find that child. The movie asks, “What would you be willing to do – even beyond the law – to get answers in that search? Would you be willing to harm another human being? Would you step over that line if you thought it would bring your child home?” There are many morality issues in this film that push the viewer to the extreme. As I sat watching, I could not help wondering what I would do if my own child was missing.

Our band director spent thousands of dollars to set up a phone system that followed them everywhere they went – in the late 1970s. They went back and forth to Colorado for months searching for their missing son. They continued to search for years. Their lives were changed forever. And they never got any answers as to what happened to him.

In the movie, the dad clearly crosses a moral and ethical line (even the trailer gives that much away). And the viewer can’t help but wonder how far they would go in similar circumstances. I, too, began to wonder where my line is.

Truthfully, I have a pretty high doctrine of humanity. That means I am one of those people who expect the best out of people. I assume folks will do the right thing and that they will be their best selves. I got this doctrine from my parents – so I blame them.

Sometimes it means I get disappointed by the failures or behavior of others – and myself. But I would rather err on the side of trusting others and expecting their best than the alternative.

So as I sat there in the movie, I knew to the core of my being that I have a fairly high moral compass and would struggle to ever justify harming another human being – even to get information about my own missing child.

I was raised in a home with faithful parents. I was taught from an early age to “Do unto others as you would have them do to you.” (Luke 6:31) I would not hurt another human being to get information about my own child … at least that’s what I think.

I believe that there are limits – ethical limits – that bind us as humans one to the other and should keep us from harming others for our own purposes. I’m an idealist – I know that. There is evil done to others for personal, selfish, and ridiculous reasons daily. I love my son but my faith leads me to only do unto others what I would have them do to me.

I watch over my son the best ways I can. And I pray for his safety. I teach him to be aware of his circumstances as he navigates a major metropolitan city on his own. I protect him the best ways I can. But he is a young man who needs to venture out and be his own person. And we have taught him well. Beyond that I have no idea what else to do.

Would I harm others to protect him? Wow – that’s a hard one. But if someone attacked him and I was standing nearby I think my “Momma Bear” would probably come raging to the surface.

Would I harm others to get information if he went missing? Lord, I hope not. I really don’t think so.

Will I do everything to teach him to protect himself and be the best he can be? Absolutely.

My faith teaches me to pray for those who are missing and for their families who miss them each and every day. And to pray for their safe return.

The best I can do is to be the best parent I can be and sometimes that is really hard … but I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Friday, September 27, 2013

Trading Powerpoint for Play-doh

Reblogged from The Wabash Center's Blog

12 Surprises When Lecturing Less
(and Teaching more!) 

Karyn L. Wiseman is the Associate Professor of Homiletics at Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia.
One of my goals is to be as creative as I can be – in my preaching and teaching. I have not always thought that I was creative, but I have come to appreciate my creativity more in the last few years. However, it’s often very hard to convince others of their creativity. Most people, in my experience, when asked if they are creative, quickly answer, “No.” A few years ago I ran across Julia Cameron’s book, The Artist's Way: A Spiritual Path to Higher Creativity. Through it I was reminded that we are ALL created by the Divine Creator to be creative.
Many of my preaching students answer that creativity question with a big NO, as well. But preaching requires creativity – in crafting a sermon, finding images and metaphors, and presenting the sermon in an engaging and creative manner. Getting students to acknowledge that reality, come to own it, and embrace their creativity has meant trying something new for me as a professor.
My preaching classes every semester have a “Play-doh Day” when we look at a number of preaching texts and then spend time playing with them to find images and metaphors for preaching. We start by having a conversation for about 20 minutes of a 2 hour class session about creativity and I use a few sections from Cameron’s book as conversation starters. And then I break out the crayons, colored paper, play-doh, and other crafting supplies and the students begin to work on expressing their creativity around those ideas.
They pick an idea from the text and find a concrete image or metaphor to use in the exercise. Then they have time to create something with Play-doh or crayons that expresses that. I try to create a relaxed environment for this activity by playing music and letting students work casually on their creative expressions. Many students have created some very good art work – stick figures are ok and affirmed – and have found ideas that others in the room never would have thought of. But not everyone finds their groove.
A big piece of the learning is moving around the room as students describe and show their artwork. Teaching with crayons and Play-doh is an amazing way to teach without lecturing but some will still balk at owning their creativity. But it’s a start.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Not What God Intends

This is not the way God wants us to live. It’s just not. There is no way you can convince me it is. God wants for us to live in peace, to show compassion and love to others, and to be humble servants showing mercy to our fellow human beings. Some may say that’s a bold assertion about the desires of God, but I believe it to the core of my being and it is borne out in scripture.

God does not want us to live in an environment where mass shootings happen – and happen far too often. God does not want us to live in an environment where young kids are killed while playing on their front porches when gang violence comes into their neighborhoods. God does not want us to live in an environment where handguns in the home end up being used in domestic violence situations or in shooting accidents. Enough is enough.

We will hear in the next few days many “facts” and opinions about the Navy Yard shooting that took place this week in DC. We will hear that “Guns don’t kill people, people kill people.” We will hear that we have enough gun regulations in our country and that they simply need to be enforced more fully. We will hear cries for patience and that the country is not ready for more gun regulations. We will also hear a huge outcry for Congress to make changes to our gun laws – finally. We will hear many stories of heroism and loss. And we will hear the pain of a nation once again wounded by the flying bullets of another mass casualty event. We will hear pleas to do something so that we can stop them. Enough is enough.

Despite all of these opinions, cries of pain, and listings of “facts,” for me, the truth remains – a person with access to guns, multiple guns, and possibly high capacity firearms fired at others in an act of hate and without regard for the humans he was hurting. He was able to do that because he had access to guns. Whether he bought them legally or illegally – he had access to guns that were created for doing maximum damage with minimum effort. He was able to do that because our country values the right to own any and as many guns one wants OVER the right to live safely in this country. Enough is enough.

I do not believe this is the way God intends for us to live. God’s vision for earth is a reign of justice and peace. God’s desire for humanity is to love and live in harmony. God’s teachings through the Old Testament, the prophets, and through the teachings of Jesus tell us clearly what we are to do. In Micah 6:8, my “theology in a verse,” says, “He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” (NRSV) In John 13:34, we are given a new command to “Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another.” (NIV)

This is God’s wish – that we love one another as God loved us – as God loves us. This is God’s command – that we live together in justice and kindness. Maybe soon we will learn to truly love one another and learn to value life over weapons of destruction. I believe that would be living up to the wishes of God.

May peace reign in our world. And may love and justice prevail – finally. Because ... enough is enough.

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Running on Empty

About a week ago a pastor friend of mine posted on their Facebook page about being exhausted and too busy to rest. One of the comments made on the post suggested they HAD to take some time away from the church to rest. The fairly quick response from the original poster was that they had no time, no money, and no one to cover for them at the church. It was clear from multiple comments under the post that many are in the same situation. It is not the first time I have seen these kinds of posts from pastors on my feed or heard comments from pastors talking like this with each other.

According to several pastoral studies, full-time pastors work on average 50+ hours per week. Approximately, 42% work more than 60 hours per week. And these are not regular hours – they are evenings and weekends, include emergency calls or visits in the middle of the night, and are often filled with stressful human interactions (contentious meetings, funerals and crisis ministry, strong willed parishioners, and extreme pressures on their personal life and families).

Part-time pastors are typically “part-time” in pay only – as so many part-time congregations expect nearly full-time work for their part-time pay. Add to this formula high seminary debt, extreme relationship expectations with congregants, and often low pay (especially in earlier calls/appointments) and you now have a recipe for potential trouble.

One of my favorite things growing up was the bold talk of my Dad about how “in tune” he was with his car. He could drive to the edge of the “E” on his gasoline gauge and he knew instinctively when he had to stop and get gas. He bragged about never running out of gas. It was a “guy thing,” my mother would say. But during one family trip, my Dad’s expert knowledge of his car failed him.

He just knew he could make it to a particular exit to get gas. My Mom, my sisters, and I tried to tell him he needed to stop because he was not going to make it. He was certain – even a bit cocky that he knew his car and he knew where the station he wanted to stop was located. You all know what happened next – he ran out of gas. And my sisters and I pushed the car to the gas pump. We have kidded him for years about it. Even though he insisted that he knew how far his car would take him – he was wrong. We were running on empty and paid the price – well, his kids did. And he has gotten teased for decades.

Often pastors do the same thing. They run too long on empty and pay the consequences. They pay the consequences in their personal faith and life. They pay the consequences in their relationship with their parishioners. They pay the consequences in the ways they pastor and preach. And they pay the consequences in how they feel about their call to the ministry.

But the truth is – many pastors feel the same way as my Facebook friend. They feel exhausted and overwhelmed but know they have little time and less money to get away. So what should we do?

First, we should follow the rules of rest and renewal:

1.  Take time every day to refresh – pray, read for fun, go for a walk, go out into nature, take a nap, take a bubble bath, or something that refreshes you EVERY DAY for at least a little bit – even if it is just 10-15 minutes it will help.

2. Take a day off every week to rest or play. If something comes up on that day once and a while, take a different afternoon off to make up for it if you cannot take a different full day off. Go to the movies, go on a family date, spend time with your spouse or significant other, or sleep in.

3.  Take time off quarterly to rest and refresh. Take time to go see a friend in a nearby town, plan a retreat at an area church or retreat center that has low cost housing. Try area universities, seminaries, or other resources if you are short on finances. Do a spiritual retreat with colleagues at a local church for a day or spend time with friends.

4.  Take time off annually for a personal or family vacation. Swap homes with a clergy colleague in another conference or synod who is also short on finances. Find low cost alternative trips that are more service oriented or mission focused. Spend time with your family in larger chunks of time if you do a staycation – and do NOT give in to the temptation of answering calls from the church. Trade coverage of your church members and emergencies while you are gone with another area pastor by offering to cover while they are gone as well.

I know … money is tight. So is time. Expectations are high. So are the pressures of ministry. But you have to make the effort to find time – daily, weekly, quarterly, and annually to do something to renew and refill your tank. No matter how long you think you can go without refilling – at some point you will run out of gas and everyone will pay for that.
Honor your family, your call, your faith, your body, and your congregation – stop early and often to fill up that tank. Don’t run on empty.

P.S. A friend suggested that in toxic environments - churches or other ministry settings that are difficult to lead or have toxic personalities to deal with - self-care is even more important. And with the number of churches that are very difficult to pastor, the need for care is even more important. But even doing that cannot make up for these situations completely. It is a step that is important, however.

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

The People in Those "Boots on the Ground"

This past week the President has been making speeches about Syria and as of now we are awaiting a vote by Congress (at some point) to determine our next course of action. The President has "assured" the American public that any intervention would not include "boots on the ground." I have often heard politicians and news anchors use the term this week. I have also heard people on the street interviewed repeat the term. It is not a new phrase but I am not fond of it at all. I believe, actually, it is an inappropriate term.

The problem is that there are people in those “boots on the ground.” There are sons and daughters, mothers and fathers, and sisters and brothers in those boots.  Using that phrase is an interesting phenomenon. It seems to me that too often when people make use of the term, it becomes a little easier to forget that living and breathing persons are in those boots. And that is a huge mistake.

I grew up in the 1960s and 70s, during the Vietnam War era. I remember vividly knowing that my Uncle Bill, my Dad's big brother, served there along with tens of thousands of other young men (and many women in largely support roles). My uncle was in the Air Force and he planned bombing runs, but he was located in an area that was often attacked. We anxiously watched the nightly TV reports, but his immediate family was even more anxious about it than we were. He was one of those "boots on the ground" persons in a very trying time.

My Mother told me stories about her two older brothers, Emory, who served in the Navy during World War II, and Jay, who served in the Navy in the late 1950s. Uncle Emory was on a battleship. They were often in harm’s way. She was extremely proud of her brothers' military service. They wore "boots on the seas" proudly.

And I have a friend, from my first church where I served as a pastor, who is married to a helicopter pilot who has served several tours in Afghanistan. His family worries for him while he is deployed and they keep the home going while he is serving our country as a proud "boots in the air" kind of guy.

I have a friend from college whose daughter, Amanda, has been in the Army’s Military Police for 13 years. She is typically on military bases in the US but has also served several tours in Iraq. She has been in precarious situations dealing with domestic abuse, violent crimes, and regular run of the mill stuff that happened on base that needed attention BUT she has also dealt with the danger of attacks in combat zones. She is one of those persons who are in those "boots on the ground."

So when people say the phrase "boots on the ground" I think of these men and women. When people say that phrase they are making it easier to forget the people who wear those boots. And I do not want to forget them.

Any language that dehumanizes or reduces the possibility that we think of the people first is not ok with me. And it should not be ok with our leaders or by us. It should not be used in any way that makes them less human or fails to acknowledge their existence.

The people attacked in Syria by gas are people, too. They are not nameless, faceless bodies to those who loved them. They are not collateral damage or unintended consequences or any other dehumanizing language.

As a pacifist, I am praying for peace. I am praying for a resolution that does not endanger our troops – the men and women in those boots on the ground. I am praying for the innocent people of Syria who have become pawns in a deadly game of power. I am praying for the UN to be the force for international peace and justice that it is intended to be. I am praying for the people - because they matter. They matter to God, they matter to us, and they matter as members of the human community.

They matter … They all matter.